In a column on my website, Chapel Hill Watch, last week, rural community development advocate Bonnie Hauser, founder of Orange County Voice, wrote about her visit to a New England town in which folks trusted the decisions of their planning board because they know its members live in the community and have to live with the consequences of their decisions the same as everyone else in town.
Chapel Hill used to be that way, longtime residents say. But a shift took place at some point in the past decade. Decisions made by the Town Council and some of the advisory boards that weigh in on development edged toward the aspirational, geared toward attracting a sugar daddy class to bring in revenue to pay for the perks we’d like to have. Drawing people with lots of money – who spend it freely – boosted our share of sales tax and property tax revenue. To keep the wealthy spending within town limits, commercial development changed. Franklin St. sprouted art galleries, upscale boutiques, pricey restaurants, high-end condos as pied-á-terres for season ticket holders. We used that extra revenue for things like prepaid buses, a fancy library with a gift shop and an indoor pool with skylights.
But the wealthy moving in displaced some of the middle and working class. Some cashed out when developers offered them eye-watering sums for modest digs that could be renovated and resold or rented out for exponentially more money. Others – including some town employees – went less willingly, forced out because rising property values hoisted property tax bills above the family budget ceiling.
As the town’s socioeconomic demographic tilted toward the wealthy, a sense of entitlement crept in. People whose idea of budgeting amounted to cutting down on the number of lattes they consume each week bullied council to vote for taxpayers paying the tab for what the middle and working class consider luxuries. Yes, we all enjoy the perks, but for some of us, the price is painfully high.
We can’t turn back the clock. Chapel Hill will never be that quaint village of a generation ago. But the council can take steps toward a new direction of inclusiveness. Don’t approve increased density without getting something substantial in return. (Hint: $60,000 as an affordable housing fund payment-in-lieu for a $75 million development is not substantial. Approving a 50% density increase for Timber Hollow Apartments without the developer turning over the existing buildings to workforce housing is not tough bargaining.)
If we value relationships – community – more than things, we can shake free of the sugar daddies and urge council members to make decisions all of us can live with. TW
The author, who is a freelance writer, started the Chapel Hill Watch blog in 2009. She lives near the long-awaited Carolina North campus. The weekly Town Council meeting is her favorite TV series.